20 Feet from Stardom

Morgan Neville

BY Daniel PrattPublished Jul 4, 2013

Morgan Neville's 20 Feet from Stardom uncovers a group of musical performers that normally don't feel the heat of the spotlight: backup singers. On the surface, it may seem an odd choice to explore in the documentary format and yet these people are the very backbone of most of the top songs that have been released for decades, performing a thankless role intended to elevate someone else's music, themselves disappearing into the background. That any of the subjects featured in his film could sing circles around most of the artists they support makes for a fascinating topic.

Through a series of performances and interviews, both archival and present-day, with industry powerhouses such as Stevie Wonder, Sting and Bruce Springsteen, to name but a few, coupled with the backup singers themselves, 20 Feet quickly becomes an invaluable time capsule of musical history.

As Lisa Fischer, the most talented of the group, demonstrates her incredible vocal range and charming personality throughout, it's difficult to understand how such a vocal dynamo has remained in the shadows. Having also sung backup for Luther Vandross and Sting, along with a number of other artists as secondary gigs, Fischer has been the lead female vocalist for the Rolling Stones since 1989. Even more surprising is that she has won a Grammy award, yet only industry insiders know her name.

The bulk of the film focuses on Darlene Love, who started out in the '60s as a vocalist for a number of "girl group" classics, lending her vocal chops to Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick, Tom Jones and Sonny & Cher. As a member of Darlene and the Blossoms, she sang the infamous hook in "Da Doo Ron Ron," but her name was later erased by Phil Spector and credited as being sung by the Crystals. Love's storied past underscores the corruption in the industry, emphasizing the pains of putting your voice out there, but never being acknowledged.

These unsung heroes of the music industry have each made a move to the front of the stage with their own solo careers, and each has retreated after failed attempts. These efforts and subsequent disappointments raise interesting discussions surrounding what it takes to "make it" and what fame is all about.

Sting puts it best when he brings up the current concept of TV's American Idol, wherein kids with only a modicum of talent are able to rise to the top briefly with success that's "wafer thin." And yet we have a group of women that have been in the industry for many years that have proven their worth many times over and excel in their role in the overall musical mosaic.

20 Feet briefly shifts gears when it prods the backup singers to explore the reasons behind their lack of success as solo performers. It quickly becomes apparent that while they each have the talent and voice, they lack the drive to succeed in a business wrought with insincerity and politicking. Fortunately, the brief diversion and discussion of the subjects' failures as solo performers do little to distract from the enormous contributions they have made to contemporary music.

Expanding its scope beyond mere musical talent and the concept of fame, racial politics are given a nod. Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" is noted for its refrain, "And the colored girls go 'doo-de-doo-de-doo,'" an obvious tip of the hat to the African-American women that had been exploited throughout the years in both American history and pop culture.

Merry Clayton (a former singer for Ray Charles) provided the backing vocals on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" at a time when civil unrest was at a boiling point, accentuating the poignancy of how backup singers could be utilized to make a statement in pop culture. Clayton went on to provide the female voice, alongside Mick Jagger, in "Gimme Shelter," singing the infamous line, "Rape, murder! It's just a shot away." The film features a segment where her vocals are isolated and magnified, making for a powerful on-screen visual metaphor and representation.

Slickly assembled and incredibly detailed, without a hint of feeling bloated, 20 Feet is a must-see for music lovers or those looking for a solid, balanced documentary. Offering a rare glimpse at an overlooked part of music history, the result is a 90-minute feast for the eyes, ears and mind.

Latest Coverage